Art always involves a what, the work itself, and a who, the maker or makers.
Don’t forget the where.
Where becomes a factor when a museum exhibits a work. Sometimes the placement can be nearly as striking as the art. The Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, hangs Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” so as to mark the culmination of its Dutch Golden Age galleries. Robert Motherwell’s “Reconciliation Elegy” dominates the atrium in the East Wing of the National Gallery, in Washington.
A where doesn’t have to be that dramatic or prominent to enhance the impression a piece of art makes. When you see a placement that really works, you know it. The where doesn’t even have to be in a gallery. Placed just so, an artwork can turn an otherwise-nondescript space into a view with a room.
Here are seven examples from area museums.
“Self-Portrait in Tuxedo,” 1927
Harvard Art Museums | Cambridge
Max Beckmann’s painting has few rivals for assurance, authority, and swank. Depending on where you stand, the painting is framed by one, two, or three doorways. At the other end of the axis is a Blue Period Picasso, “Mother and Child.” Is Beckmann’s look one of acceptance — or disapproval?
Greek funerary lion, 3d century BCE
Rhode Island School of Design Museum | Providence
Although the sculpture is small, it has the honor of being visible on not one but two axes. Doorways frame it both lengthwise and crosswise. If that weren’t enough, the sculpture’s supports rest on a low plinth. It’s as if the lion were crouching, ready to pounce. Roar!
“Cochiti Redskins,” c. 2000
Museum of Fine Arts
Mateo Romero’s painting isn’t in a gallery. Tucked away in back of the Art of the Americas Wing, it hangs at the top of a small staircase that leads to studio-art classrooms. That out-of-the-way location makes the canvas stand out all the more.
Nine Shepard Fairey screenprints, 2000-2007
Institute of Contemporary Art
There are some familiar faces here. Hey, there’s Richard Nixon! There’s Malcolm X! But they’re in an unfamiliar space: at the bottom of the first-floor staircase, far from the fourth-floor galleries. As with the Romero painting, the unexpected location makes viewing feel intimate. It’s just you and Nixon and Malcolm and the rest.
“Pope Innocent X,” c. 1650
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
This papal portrait after Diego Velazquez hangs in front of an Italian desk — very handsome, walnut, with brass fittings, c. 1700. Presumably, Mrs. Gardner used to sit at it and gaze at the painting. So the visitor gets the view she did (minus being able to pull up a chair and plop down).
Davis Museum at Wellesley College | Wellesley
Flanked by two short staircases, Tim Okamura’s double portrait has a small wall all to itself. Seen from across the museum’s atrium space, those few square feet look like a promenade, or stage, expressly made for Okamura’s two young women.
Van de Graaff generator
Museum of Science
True, the generator isn’t a work of art. But its two globes and the columns they rest on are gorgeously sculptural — like Iron Giant baby rattles. Museumgoers have a choice of perspectives: looking up, from a Theater of Electricity seat, or down, from a second-level balcony.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.